When U.S. citizens proclaim with gusto that they “support the troops” what does that really mean? In the past, supporting the troops has been conflated with supporting war efforts, despite the logic that fewer wars would mean fewer deaths of young uniformed men and women.
Today, however, as the economic, societal, and human costs of war are being examined with more scrutiny, some are beginning to see that supporting the troops does not always equate with a battle cry for war.
My last piece delved into U.S. military intervention in Colombia. I, like many other scholars, including the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, dismissed the notion of counterinsurgency as a culturally educated or humanitarian type of war, and addressed the harm militarized policies can have on another nation. As U.S. troops continue to risk their lives around the world, it is imperative that U.S. citizens are fully educated on the complexities of our international engagements and advocate for policies that better protect our troops and civilians around the globe.
Throughout the Colombian conflict there have been what each side delineates as “good guys” and “bad guys” each flirting with the lines of morality for what they think is just. The FARC, like many others, are against U.S. intervention in Colombia. They use buzz words like “imperialism” while the U.S. shouts back buzz words like “terrorism”. What is lost amongst the shouts of political posturing are the voices of civilians, from both the U.S. and Colombia. I, like many, believe that education is the first step to reclaiming a voice. So, let’s start from the beginning.
Between 1954 and 1964 the U.S. trained about 250 Colombians in counterinsurgency tactics. In 1964 this number rose to about 300 a year. The U.S. espoused a National Security Doctrine focused on destroying “internal subversives”- the PCC- backed (Communist Party of Colombia) independent collectives of peasants that had fomented throughout a civil war in Colombia known as La Violencia. In 1964, with the support U.S. recommendations, aid, and training, the Colombian government launched “Operation Marquetalia”. Tasked with retaking the Marquetalia region in the Tolima province, and capturing or killing Manuel Marulanda, (an active PCC member who would later play a role in establishing the FARC), government troops launched an attack on the region. However, Colombian troops failed to kill or capture Marulanda, and the region was taken back from government hands months later. Further disenchanted with the Colombian government’s policies, many in the rural populace were emboldened and determined to defy government decrees and violent rule. “Operation Marquetalia” marked a turning point that initiated the creation of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
The FARC was founded on a Marxist-Leninist ideology which they claimed was designed to protect the interests of the rural peasantry. When founded, they were a defensive organization that did not yet employ offensive tactics or participate in the drug trade. It was not until 1982, at the seventh conference of the guerilla movement, that the FARC officially ratified the use of offensive tactics, though in practice they had been engaging in offensive attacks before the strategy was made official. Over time the FARC’s strategies devolved and preyed on the population they claimed to protect. In order to fund their campaign the FARC engaged in aggressive kidnapping and ransoming tactics, extortion of wealthy land owners, taxing drug traffickers, and though they still deny it, trafficking drugs themselves. Today, they engage their old ideology, referencing concern for marginalized groups throughout Colombia in order to legitimize violence and terror tactics.
To combat the FARC, paramilitary groups began to coalesce throughout the 1980s as private militias hired by wealthy land owners to protect them from extortion. These right-winged militias united in 1997 to form the umbrella paramilitary organization Autodefenas Unidas de Colombia (United Self Defense Forces of Colombia) and came to be some of the deadliest actors in the conflict.
Throughout the 80s and 90s actors in the conflict (guerrillas, paramilitaries, and the Colombian government) became increasingly involved in the drug trade and corrupted by a lust for money. U.S. recommended and funded counterinsurgency tactics continued, despite evidence that they were inducing harm. In a 1994 CIA Intelligence Memorandum released under the Freedom of Information Act, intelligence verified that “Gaviria’s [Colombian President from 1990-1994] hardline counterinsurgency approach has sent a clear law-and- order message and has reassured U.S. firms interested in continued investment in Colombia”. Rather than highlighting concerns with human rights and ‘collateral damage’, the report denotes that the guerrillas “continued ability to hit military and economic targets in remote regions and to sow fear through assassinations and bombings in the cities undermines popular confidence in the government and makes foreign investors wary”.
The report further emphasizes the need for the Gaviria administration to increase troops in oil producing regions so as to ensure investor confidence. It states that “…if a new administration focuses on extended talks with the guerillas and fails to increase military presence in the oil regions, investors are likely to hold back on new ventures. The report goes on to state that “To exploit public fears, The President [Gaviria] has been pressing the theme that the guerillas have discarded their ideology and evolved into common criminals and hired assassins.” What is mentioned about human rights is connoted in an air of ‘collateral damage’. The report states that:
“Colombian security forces continue to employ death squad tactics in their counterinsurgency campaign. The military has a history of assassinating leftwing civilians in guerrilla areas, cooperating with narcotics-related paramilitary groups in attacks against suspected guerrilla sympathizers, and killing captured combatants…Despite improvements in the investment climate as a result of Gaviria’s counterinsurgency program, Colombia’s difficulty in correcting human rights abuses is likely to continue as long as the hardline strategy is in force. The increase in Army operations in rural guerilla strongholds has escalated violence, and the Army so far has treated Gaviria’s new human rights guidelines as merely pro forms. The Army traditionally has not taken guerilla prisoners, and several recent brutal insurgent ambushes have not encouraged sensitivity to human rights practices. Moreover, most of the fighting takes place in remote regions, where it is difficult for the government to exercise oversight.” (Click here for the full report)
U.S. intelligence was exceptionally concerned with the economic implications of the conflict, and despite reports of Colombian troop’s “death squad tactics” and human rights abuses, intelligence officials still recommended an increase of troops in oil producing areas.
Counterinsurgency strategy continued to intensify in Colombia throughout the 21st century. Despite the U.S. government’s recognition of the toll such “hardliner” counterinsurgency tactics have, in 2000 under Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and U.S. President George W. Bush, the military allies launched another hardline counterinsurgency strategy under the guise of Plan Colombia-a $1.3 billion antinarcotics aid package designed to staunch the growing narcotics industry and regain the 40 percent of national territory occupied by insurgent forces. While Plan Colombia was successful in decreasing the guerilla’s numbers and pushing combatant forces deeper into the mountains, it militarized the countryside, was fraught with corruption and scandal (false positives, and the parapolitics and DAS scandal to name a few), jostled the organization of social movements, and the shredded the fabric of communities through military policies of terror and economic marginalization.
Today, the FARC still claims to represent those that are disenfranchised and/or ignored by the Colombian government. Meanwhile the government continues to argue that its military strategies help provide security for the people. This may be true in large cities where the government chooses to invest more resources for infrastructure and basic amenities in order to attract businesspeople and tourists. However, when I met a multitude of small rural communities on my trip to Colombia through a Witness for Peace delegation, I neither saw nor heard of military policies providing peace of mind or increased security. Indigenous, Afro-Colombian, and Campesino communities are caught in the middle of a battle they did not ask for. When the FARC enters an area Colombian troops and/or paramilitaries are often soon to follow. These groups limit community’s movements, people’s ability to get to work, school, and home, and place citizens in the middle of a battle that cannot be won. While in Colombia I was repetitively told by the communities we visited that people in uniform, be they the FARC or Colombian troops, do not provide protection, but insecurity and fear.
Counterinsurgency is a failed military tactic because it blatantly places citizens in the middle. Insurgency, however, is no different. Innocent citizens are too often blamed by the FARC for consorting with the paramilitaries or Colombian troops. And innocent citizens are too often blamed by Colombian troops for consorting with the FARC. The line between “friend” and “foe” is blurred, suspicion grips individuals and tears at stable community fabrics and cultural landscapes.
In an October 3rd communique regarding the progression of current Peace Talks in Havana, the FARC stated that “The recent national agrarian and popular strike corroborates the social dissatisfaction and discontent, which tells us we are right and expresses the correctness of the proposals we have taken to the Table for discussion…. At the Table, there are two opposing visions, trying to find common ground. On the one hand, there is the neoliberal approach of the development of the country, which, held up by the government, prioritizes the interests of multinationals, and on the other side the focus of the insurgency, embodying the claims of the majority, which, for example, ask for a comprehensive rural reform, social justice and democracy in terms of peace with sovereignty.” The FARC continue to use the struggles of disenfranchised civilians as justification for their tactics, yet, they fail to recognize that because of their violent methodology protests or strikes that the FARC claim to support are often delegitimized in the eyes of the U.S. and Colombian governments. The FARC no longer represent the interests of the people.
It is clear that both the FARC and actors within the U.S. government are still not listening. On September 24, former CIA director General Petraeus coauthored an article with Michael E. O’Hanlon in which they hailed Colombia as a success story and model for U.S. intervention. They go on to recommend that the U.S. “Sustain the levels of aid associated with Plan Colombia for another half decade or so.” Meanwhile the FARC is using the widespread agricultural strike to justify their ideological rectitude. Or as they more simply put it, the strike “tells us we are right.” They failed to note however, that throughout the strikes and protests citizens were largely non-violent, a direct contradiction to the FARC’s methodology.
Stories are never just black and white, and neither are party lines. U.S. intervention efforts that prioritize military strategies over humanitarian concerns in Colombia have been harmful, but many within the U.S. support a different approach that addresses structural socio-economic problems. These people include citizens, activists, U.S. veterans, and members of congress like Jim McGovern (D-MA), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), and Hank Johnson (D-GA).
Knowledge is an interesting thing. We all have it. We use it to justify our actions, our beliefs, and often our faults. But knowledge also varies based on teachings, experience, and gut instinct. FARC combatants and many within the U.S. and Colombian governments and military believe that they are doing the right thing. They are fighting for what they have been taught is right, just, and dignified. So who is right? Some might have a quick simple answer. But what in life is ever that simple?
Words are. The FARC calls U.S. and Colombian troops symbols of oppression. The Colombian and U.S. governments call the FARC terrorists. These labels make pulling the trigger, killing another human being, easier. People become “targets,” “enemies,” and threats to be nullified. But much is masked by words. The fact that a soldier who was killed joined the Colombian military to find a road out of poverty. The reality that a FARC or ELN combatant who was killed longed of a life where he didn’t have to fight. The truth that citizens who both the FARC and Colombian troops claim to protect are killed in the midst of firefights, have their livelihoods ruined, and leave their homes behind in search of other economic opportunities. What is the rhetoric used to describe these individuals, families, and communities?
Collateral damage. Sacrifices. The cost of war.
Explain those terms to the families. To the husbands, wives, and children.
Counterinsurgency tactics and the discourse in which they are validated is harmful, but so are the tactics of the FARC.
Enough with finger pointing on all sides. Let’s have a moment of realism.
The FARC has lost much support of the Colombian populace because of their tactics. For many, they are no longer a viable political alternative. As been demonstrated time and again, violence does not open ears, it closes them.
With 220,000 lives lost and 5.5 million displaced, people have seen enough. Yet, the Colombian conflict is more than one of physical violence, it is an economic war in which U.S. and Colombian economic and military policies are inflicted on communities without their consent, and leftist guerillas and right-winged paramilitaries threaten what livelihood does exist. Peace will not be easy and it will not come solely from the Talks. Peace will emerge when respect and dignity is shown to communities like La Toma, San Jose, and the Porvenir Community and Biodiversity Council. When their communities are given a greater voice than the FARC and multinational corporations, when the justice system works in their favor, and when people in uniform are not the sole presence of the state, then real peace may begin to develop.
Currently, the FARC is holding a former U.S. marine, Kevin Scott Sutay, who was captured on June 20. He was suspected of being a spy for the United States. They say they are willing to release him as a mark of good faith as peace talks proceed. A better faith effort would have been not to capture him at all. People are not symbols to be used as representations of imperialism or control. No matter their job, people are people. Based on current reports, the marine is free to leave but is unable to because there has not yet been a ceasefire in the area where he is held. The Red Cross is organizing his retrieval.
Capturing people, killing civilians, terrifying the population is no way to gain respect, credibility, or trust. This is true for all sides of the conflict.
Though human rights discourse has been intensified in the curricula employed by U.S. troops when training Colombian forces, abuses still continue with impunity. Many human rights groups fear this impunity will only increase with Colombia’s recent military justice law.
In Catherine Lutz and Matthew Gutmann’s “Breaking Ranks”, when speaking about his experience in Iraq, U.S. war veteran Garett Reppenhagan aptly stated that “It doesn’t take a type of person to be out there and to commit atrocities. It’s just circumstance. So, I don’t know, I always think back to that and I’m amazed. The ease at which an individual person can have control and power over another individual human.” In Colombia, the circumstance needs to change. While increased training on human rights certainly does not hurt, ultimately their fewer infractions will be committed if the combat situation itself is changed. The current peace talks, the Victims law, and the recent agricultural strike have been great strides, but political will is still needed to enforce change and break the chains of the status quo.
I do not profess to know how to solve the problem of militarization in the United States, let alone the struggles Colombian citizens face on a daily basis. But, from what I heard when I was in the country, Colombian citizens have beautiful, kind, and intelligent ideas if only they were given more attention, more of a voice, more power.
Kevin Scott Sutay should be released. The United States should shift its aid to Colombia from heavily militaristic to heavily humanitarian. When people say that they “support our troops”, they should recognize that actions speak louder than words. And civilians should not reap the harm of a battle between two inharmonious sides. These are a few things I have come to learn and believe throughout my studies of Colombia. I do not claim to speak for Colombians themselves, because they have their own voices and opinions, many differing from my own. But from my many books and my experiences this is some of the knowledge I have propagated and will continue to add to for years to come.
- Brittain, J. 2010. Revolutionary Social Change in Colombia: The Origin and Direction of the FARC-EP. New York: Pluto Press.
- Dudley, S. 2006. Walking Ghosts: Murder and Guerilla Politics in Colombia. New York: Routledge
- Gill, L. 2004. The School of the Americas. Durham. Duke University Press.
- Gutmann, M and Lutz, C. 2010. Breaking Ranks: Iraq Veterans Speak out Against the War. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Network of Concerned Anthropologists. 2009. The Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual or Notes on the Demilitarizing American Society. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.